Peco lobbies against proposed Philadelphia energy panel

Posted: June 21, 2010

The passage last week of City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke's bill to create a municipal energy authority - ostensibly to help the city develop alternative energy sources for government use and to give it greater buying power - gave a rare public glimpse of a full behind-the-scenes lobbying blitz.

Peco Energy Co. and its parent company, Exelon Corp., did not testify against the bill at a May 5 public hearing, and Council originally passed the bill in a 17-0 vote June 3.

On June 10, Council took the bill back for reconsideration for technical changes at the request of the Nutter administration. It was then that Exelon lobbyists - led by longtime Peco external-affairs manager Ed McBride, as familiar a face as you will find at Council meetings - moved in.

McBride tried to convince Council members they should amend the bill, which would mean holding it over the summer for a final vote in September.

Clarke said holding the bill any longer would only give Exelon the chance "to continue to create mischief."

"Peco has been knocking on doors, causing confusion," Clarke told fellow Council members in caucus before Thursday's regular meeting.

In a remarkable public exchange, Council members allowed McBride to address them in caucus even though Peco and Exelon had not testified in public. McBride said the "bean counters" at his company were concerned that the potential of the authority's becoming a competitor to Peco would hurt the utility's bond rating. That would lead to higher borrowing costs and higher electric rates.

McBride said company lawyers "feel that the way the legislation reads, the city can get into the energy generating business."

Council members eventually dismissed McBride's argument because state law prevents such an authority from doing that. They passed the bill, 17-0. But Clarke was still shaking his head hours later at his odd debate with a lobbyist before the full Council.

"It was not the normal process - I'll say that." - Jeff Shields

Assessor's savoir faire

Even before he accepted his job as Philadelphia's new chief property assessor this month, Richie McKeithen showed a little political savoir faire in his first appearance before City Council.

He'll need that skill, since his job puts him in charge of overhauling the troubled Board of Revision of Taxes and its haphazard assessments of property values.

At a hearing last week, Councilman Darrell L. Clarke initially said he was "disappointed" that McKeithen was unaware that Pennsylvania laws limit Philadelphia's ability to rein in tax increases caused by rising property values.

"It's unfortunate that people didn't prepare you for that question," Clarke said.

McKeithen, who will start July 1, countered that his preparation for the Council hearing had focused mostly on accurately assessing properties and assured Clarke that he would work "hand in hand" with Council to make sure big tax increases didn't crush low-income property owners.

Clark seemed reassured.

"That's a good comeback because it says you're going to stay out of the politics," the councilman said. "You didn't take the bait." - Miriam Hill

An eye on corruption

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo. Ex-City Councilman Rick Mariano. T. Milton Street, elder brother of former Mayor John F. Street.

All are high-profile felons put away by federal prosecutors.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams wants to change that - sort of.

He says corrupt public officials, city employees, and contractors should be dogged by local investigators as well.

"There seems to have been a culture in the city that says the U.S. Attorney's Office is the place to take corruption cases," said Curtis Douglas, Williams' deputy of investigations. "Well, the D.A. has decided it's time to change that culture and wants the city to know he is willing to prosecute those cases also."

That's why Williams wants to form a "corruption task force" that would include three Nutter administration offices (the city inspector general, the city chief integrity officer, and the city solicitor), the city controller, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, and the nonprofit Committee of Seventy.

"If they get any reports of criminal activity, they would report it to [Williams] for investigation," Douglas said. "Not all these cases have to go to the federal government."

Douglas said the response so far had been "very enthusiastic."

Maybe so, but the idea - which includes Williams' holding quarterly meetings - has also raised an eyebrow or two.

Shane Creamer, the Ethics Board's executive director, said he intended to attend an initial meeting. "However," he told his board members last week, "I do not yet understand the purpose of the quarterly meetings or the need for a task force or coalition to discuss referrals." - Marcia Gelbart

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